Climate Change Blog 27
Facts on the Ground:
Extreme weather, it appears, will always lead off this Blog. It is what climate models have predicted for years, and the models predict more to come. Only worse.
California again was hit with deadly, costly and disruptive fires. The Tick Fire burned over 4,300 acres and was one of a dozen fires in the state propelled by strong winds. Schools were closed in the Santa Clarita and San Fernando Valleys and 50,000 people evacuated in Los Angeles County where the fire spread through canyons north of Los Angeles, jumping a freeway and threatening thousands of homes. 16,000 acres of Sonoma County were engulfed by the Kincade Fire. Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles and Sonoma Counties.
Peak fire season is not over in California but with luck the wildfires this year will be less catastrophic than those of the past two years. Fewer than 300 structures have burned in wildfires in 2019 compared with more than 23,000 last year. And around 163,000 acres have burned this year compared with 1.6 million acres in 2018.
The total area burned in a single year by wildfires in the US has exceeded 13,900 square miles only four times since the middle of last century. All four times have happened this decade, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA. As a result, government agencies are preparing themselves to deal with fires that are increasingly seen as inevitable.
In October, approximately 600 wildfires burned in a three day period as emergency workers rushed to evacuate tens of thousands of people in Southern California.
These fires follow three straight years of record-breaking fires. One wonders, what adaptation/mitigation measures, if any, might allow people to live in an ecosystem that is primed to burn? The National Climate Assessment, the government report summarizing present and future effects of a warming climate on the US, sees fire is a growing problem. Climate change will lead to more wildfires nationwide as hotter temperatures dry out plants, making them easier to ignite.
“There is anger in the community,” said Michael Gossman, the deputy county administrator of Sonoma County’s office of recovery and resilience. In 2017 his county was devastated by the Sonoma Complex fires, which killed 24 and burned more than 170 square miles.
Fire was not the only threat to hit the US. Record low temperatures hit across the country in November due to an Arctic blast in the Midwest and East and closed schools in the Mid-south. Early-season snow fell across western and northern NY and New England.
The air mass led to more than a thousand flight cancellations and broke about 150 daily-temperature records across the eastern half of the country. Temperatures dove to negative 1 degree in Sioux City, Iowa, and the 20s in Greenwood, Miss., Austin, Tex., Houston and New Orleans.
The National Weather Service in Indianapolis said that 8F set the record for the coldest temperature this early in the season. Low temperatures in Tennessee and Arkansas also prompted school closings and delayed openings in several counties. The wind chill in the Memphis area was about 10 degrees. Temperatures plunged to record-breaking lows or tied with existing records in several areas in the Great Plains as well. Northern Montana reached minus 19, beating the previous daily temperature record by three degrees.
The cold front stretched from the Southern Plains to the Ohio River Valley and then shifted to the Gulf and East Coasts. More than a thousand flights were canceled at Chicago’s airport but not before an American Airlines plane slid off the runway at O’Hare.
Add tornados to the list of extreme and oddly timed weather. While parts of the country were battling rain and snow, tornadoes touched down in Mississippi and Louisiana. At least two tornadoes hit the Franklin and Madison parishes of Louisiana and two more hit in Rankin County, Miss.
Oddly, temperatures in the Arctic reached near record highs this past year leading to low summer sea ice, cascading impacts on the regional food web and heightened concerns over sea level rise. The average temperature for the year ending in September was the second highest since record-keeping began in 1900. This continues a worrying trend, the past six years have been the warmest ever recorded in the region.
In July, Reykjavik, Iceland, experienced its warmest month on record. Similarly, Anchorage, Alaska, set heat records in June, July and August.
But the extreme temperatures were not confined to summer. In Svalbard, Norway, December temperatures were 10F warmer than the 1981-2010 temperature average. Ninety-five % of the Greenland ice sheet thawed this reporting year. A separate study published in the journal Nature found that Greenland was losing ice seven times faster than it did in the 1990s, a pace that would add roughly three additional inches of SLR by century’s end.
Arctic sea ice — which helps cool the polar regions, moderates global weather patterns and provides critical habitat for animals like polar bears — continued to decline this year, matching the second lowest summer extent recorded since satellite records began in 1979. (It was tied with 2016 and 2006.)
In particular, the Bering Sea, site of some of the largest commercial fisheries in the US, saw unprecedented reductions in sea ice for the second winter in a row. What sea ice does exist tends to be younger, thinner and more susceptible to melting. Old ice that had been around for more than four years used to be 33% of the ice cover, now it’s 1%.
The loss of sea ice changes how much heat is in the ocean, which in turn affects fisheries and ecosystems, creating cascading effects within this interconnected system. But what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. Permafrost sequesters twice as much heat-trapping carbon dioxide as is currently in the atmosphere. As that ground thaws it releases carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change. Researchers say that if too much permafrost thaws it will create a self-reinforcing cycle wherein thawing permafrost will release immense amounts of carbon to the atmosphere leading to more heating of the planet leading to more thawing permafrost, worsening climate change. Recent observations of carbon flows in Alaskan permafrost have found that more carbon is being released than stored.
“The key question really remains as to whether the measurements in Alaska over a several year period are representative of the broader Arctic system of other regions in the Arctic where permafrost exists,” said Matthew Druckenmiller, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. “If, in fact, it is, then we are seeing signs that the Arctic is really beginning to play that role as a large-scale feedback to the climate system.” The implications of this are horrific.
Atmospheric Rivers and Cyclone Bombs:
Atmospheric Rivers is a meteorological phenomenon, the product of a warmer climate, increased evaporation and resulting increased water vapor in the atmosphere. And lots of it. Atmospheric Rivers are expected to become wetter, longer and wider as the climate warms, producing more devastating and costly storms and floods. Translating the ravages of climate change into dollars and cents is a useful tool for policymakers working to reduce carbon missions.
Such storms have caused almost $51 billion in flood damages across the West over 40 years. Atmospheric Rivers cause an average of $1 billion of damage per year in the West. That figure is expected to grow until carbon emissions are greatly reduced.
The storms may produce rain or snow. A pre-winter freak storm that crossed a great deal of the US left often record-braking amounts of snow in at least 30 states.
Here’s another term that may be new: “bomb cyclone.” That was the term used by meteorologists to sum up the power and impact of the storms in certain hard hit areas like Duluth, NM, (23.5 inches of snow). Bomb cyclone is a storm in which pressure drops by at least 24 millibars in 24 hours — with winds reaching up to 106 m.p.h. These storms tend to be deadly and force highway, airport and business closures and power outages.
Parts of Northern California saw more than four feet of snow, Cedar Grove, CA, got 49 inches, Oregon: 15 inches at Rock Creek, Washington: 23 inches at Wenatchee, Arizona: 22 inches at Parks, New Mexico: 16 inches at Black Lakes, Denver got nearly a foot of snow the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, hundreds of flights were canceled, leaving thousands of travelers stranded at the airport overnight. Stretches of major highways across the region were closed due to poor driving conditions and poor-to-nonexistent visibility.
Nevada got: 18 inches at Mount Rose, Utah: 48 inches at Snowbasin, 47 inches at Alta and 42 inches at Powder Mountain (good for skiers, if they could get there), Montana: 14 inches at Choteau, Cut Bank and Red Lodge, Wyoming: 30 inches at Muddy Gap, Idaho: 20 inches at Featherville,
Storm-related accidents were reported across the Midwest, including the death of four people in Missouri. In South Dakota the blizzard may have caused the crash of a private plane carrying 12 passengers, all of whom were family members, killing 9.
Nebraska got 14 inches at Chadron, South Dakota: 30 inches at Lead, North Dakota: 15 inches at Ashley, Minnesota: 25.1 inches at Carlton and 23.5 inches at Duluth, Iowa: 4.5 inches at Sibley, Michigan: 28 inches at Gould City, Wisconsin: 28.4 inches at Ashland.
As I’ve explained, the jet stream has weakened due to climate change and storms that previously would stay north now dip into the south. North Carolina got 4 inches of snow at Meat Camp, Tennessee: 4.5 inches at Mount Le Conte, Virginia: 4 inches at Jewell Ridge, West Virginia: 7 inches at Parcoal.
Finally, the storm reached the Northeast. Schools and colleges from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts closed for a snow day. Gov. Cuomo of New York declared a state of emergency for several upstate counties including Albany and Saratoga, saying he would deploy 300 members of the National Guard to help with snow removal.
In New Jersey, more than 36,000 homes and businesses were left without electricity. Pennsylvania got 14 inches at Susquehanna, New Jersey: 14.3 inches at Highland Lakes and 9.2 inches at West Milford, New York: 28 inches at Fultonville, Connecticut: 18 inches at North Granby, Rhode Island: 6.7 inches at Cumberland, Massachusetts: 22.5 inches at Lenox and Plainfield, Maine: 12.4 inches at Ogunquit, Vermont: 26 inches at Woodford.
And winter has just begun.
World’s Oceans Are Losing Oxygen Rapidly
Here’s another term you may not be familiar with: Oceanic Deoxygenation. A new report from 67 scientists in 17 countries, released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, found that oxygen levels in the world’s oceans declined an average of roughly 2% between 1960 and 2010. The decline is largely attributed to climate change and nutrient runoff, i.e., excessive nutrients from fertilizers used on farms and lawns washing into waterways.
Oxygen is not uniformly distributed in the ocean. Water in parts of the tropics has experienced 40 - 50% reduction in oxygen. Similar findings have been made along the coast of California with mass fish die-offs being the most dramatic evidence of deoxygenation.
As ocean temperatures increase, the warmer water can’t hold as much gas, including oxygen, as cooler water. Warming temperatures also affect the ability of ocean water to mix, so that the oxygen absorbed on the top layer doesn’t properly get down into the deeper ocean. And what oxygen is available gets used up more quickly because marine life uses more oxygen when temperatures are warmer.
Worse, the loss of oxygen in the ocean affects the planetary cycling of elements such as nitrogen and phosphorous which are essential for life on Earth. We lower these oxygen levels at our peril. Rising levels of carbon dioxide lower oceanic oxygen levels so, once again, we must reduce global CO2 emissions. Are we?
Record-high Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions in 2019
Despite over 20 years of annual international meetings in which world leaders acknowledge the growing threat of climate change and vow to decrease GHG emissions, such emissions continue to rise. According to the Global Carbon Project, global emissions from coal declined by about 0.9% in 2019, but that drop was more than offset by the increased use of oil and natural gas around the world. Recent studies have confirmed that the production and transport and storage of natural gas releases huge amounts of methane which can warm the planet more than 80 times as much as the same amount of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
And while the growth rate in GHG emissions has slowed, scientists have long warned that in order to avoid the most severe consequences of climate change — including deadly heat waves, droughts, and food and water shortages and SLR and environmental refugees— global CO2 emissions must steadily decline each year and nearly zero out before the end of the century. That is not happening.
During the 2000s, global fossil-fuel emissions were rising by roughly 3% per year on average, driven mostly by coal-fueled growth in China. Since 2010, emissions have grown more slowly as China’s need for new coal plants has waned and governments around the world have promoted cleaner technologies like electric cars, wind and solar power.
“I do think global and national policies are making a difference, particularly by driving the rapid growth in renewables, and we’d be worse off without them,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of earth system science at Stanford University. “But at the same time, it’s clear those policies haven’t been enough to stop the growth in fossil fuels.”
The new data shows that natural gas has become the biggest driver of emissions growth globally. Japan now relies on imported natural gas to replace many of the carbon-free nuclear plants that were closed after the 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power station. And a boom in hydraulic fracturing has elevated natural gas as the largest source of electricity in the US.
China is responsible for 26% of the world’s CO2 emission each year, the US 14%, the European Union 9% and India 7%. China’s emissions are projected to rise by about 2.6% this year. Coal emissions in China grew by just 0.8 %, but the country is quickly expanding its use of oil to fuel cars and trucks, and natural gas to heat homes and power factories.
In the US, CO2 emissions may fall 1.7 % in 2019, due to a decline in coal-fired electricity. But this year’s drop won’t offset the 2.8 % increase in 2018. Our failure to control emissions likely will be exacerbated by the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back Obama-era regulations on carbon pollution from vehicle tailpipes and power-plants.
The European Union’s emissions may also fall 1.7 % this year as the continent’s emissions-trading system helped remove about 20% of its coal power from the grid. Europe also saw an increase in demand for diesel and aviation fuel indicating that policymakers have been unable to curtail emissions from cars, trucks and planes even as they promote electric vehicles.
India has stated its goal of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but its emissions are expected to rise only 1.8 % this year after an 8 % increase in 2018. But those low numbers may be explained by weaker economic growth and a strong monsoon season that allowed the country to generate more electricity from its emissions-free hydroelectric dams and less from its coal plants. India is promoting solar power and electric vehicles, and it remains to be seen whether those policies can keep future emissions low.
Climate Change Is Accelerating: ‘Things Are Getting Worse’
So said Petteri Taalas, Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization, which issued its annual state of the global climate report, concluding a decade of what it called exceptional global heat. “It’s more urgent than ever to proceed with mitigation.”
The report cited more devastating fires in California, persistent drought in the Southwest, record flooding in Europe and Africa, and a heat wave, of all things, in Greenland. Climate change and its effects are accelerating, with climate related disasters piling up, season after season.
Reducing GHG emissions to fight climate change will require drastic measures, Dr. Taalas said. “The only solution is to get rid of fossil fuels in power production, industry and transportation.”
Seas are warming and rising faster, putting more cities at risk of tidal flooding or worse. Glaciers are melting at a pace many researchers did not expect for decades. The amount of Arctic sea ice has declined so rapidly that the region may see ice-free summers by the 2030s.
Permanently frozen ground, or permafrost, is thawing more rapidly, threatening the release of large amounts of long-stored carbon that could in turn make warming even worse, in what scientists call a climate feedback loop.
In a recent commentary in the journal Nature, scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research in Germany and other institutions warned that the acceleration of ice loss and other effects of climate change have brought the world “dangerously close” to abrupt and irreversible changes, or tipping points. Among these, the researchers said, were the collapse of at least part of the West Antarctic ice sheet — which itself could eventually raise sea levels by four feet or more — or the loss of the Amazon rainforest.
“In our view, the consideration of tipping points helps to define that we are in a climate emergency,” they wrote.
The societal toll is accelerating, too, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said in Madrid before the opening of the U.N.’s annual climate conference. “Climate-related natural disasters are becoming more frequent, more deadly, more destructive, with growing human and financial costs,” he said.
A growing number of studies have made more clear the causal relationship between global warming and ‘natural’ disasters. Heat waves in Europe in June and July, extreme rainfall in Texas during Tropical Storm Imelda in September, the drought that precipitated the “Day Zero” water crisis in Cape Town in 2018 are among many events shown to have been made more likely, more intense, or both, by climate change.
Effects like loss of sea ice, more severe heat waves and changes in rainfall patterns were long predicted by scientists and described in reports like those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and, in the US, the National Climate Assessments produced by federal researchers.
“So much of what we’re seeing is exactly consistent with what’s expected from climate change,” said Philip B. Duffy, a physicist and president of the Woods Hole Research Center, which studies the environment.
At the root of the changes is the basic process of global warming. As carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, they trap more of the heat that radiates from Earth’s surface as it absorbs sunlight.
The World Meteorological Organization’s state of the global climate report, released at the Madrid talks, said that this decade will almost certainly be the warmest decade on record. And the second half of the decade was much warmer than the first, with global temperatures averaged over the second half about 0.2 degree Celsius (about 0.4 degree Fahrenheit) higher.
“All the time we’re breaking records in temperatures,” Dr. Taalas said.
The records extend to the oceans as well, which absorb about 90% of the excess heat retained by Earth as a result of increased GHG. Average ocean temperatures so far this year exceed those of 2018, which were records, the report said.
Since the rise of industry in the second half of the 19th century, when widespread emissions of greenhouse gases began, the world has warmed by about 1.1C.
But how fast temperatures will continue to increase, and how much worse things may get, depends in large part on whether the world reins in GHG emissions, and by how much. After flattening between 2014 and 2016, annual emissions from burning fossil fuels for energy have risen again.
The 2015 Paris agreement called for countries to pursue efforts to limit warming this century to 2C (3.6F) above preindustrial levels, with an even stricter target of 1.5C. But the United States under Trump is leaving the agreement, and a United Nations report last month suggested that even if countries meet their pledges to cut emissions, and many are far off track, warming would be more than twice the 1.5-degree target.
Using satellite data, a 2018 study found that global sea level rise is now about 4.5 millimeters a year, or a little less than one-fifth of an inch. The rate is increasing by about a 10th of a millimeter a year. The study estimated that the acceleration would result in SLR by the end of this century of 65 centimeters, or about 25 inches, which is more than double the rise if the rate had remained constant.
Sea level rise results from a combination of melting glaciers and ice sheets, and the thermal expansion of seawater as ocean temperatures rise. As with most of the projected effects of climate change, there is a high level of uncertainty about future sea levels.
“No one is terribly sure about what will happen by 2100,” Dr. Nerem said. “If the ice sheets really start to go, things could change dramatically.”
Greenland and Antarctica hold enough ice to raise seas by about 220 feet if it all melted. Complete melting would take many centuries, but melting is speeding up on the Greenland sheet, which currently contributes about two-thirds of a millimeter to sea level rise annually, and on much of the West Antarctic sheet
“This is a consequence of the warming temperatures of climate change,” said Marco Tedesco, a climate scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.
“Overall we do not expect Greenland to slow down,” he said. “And we definitely expect an acceleration in mass loss of the West Antarctic ice sheet.” While the West Antarctic sheet currently contributes a small amount to sea level rise, eventually it could contribute as much as Greenland, he said.
Amid the long term increase in ice-sheet melting there have been some exceptional periods, including this summer in Greenland, when heat from Europe spread north, resulting in temperatures as much as 15F above normal. Overall this year, Greenland had a net ice loss of about 350 billion tons, about 20 % more than the average in recent years and enough to add one millimeter to sea levels by itself.
A recent analysis by Dr. Tedesco and a colleague showed that a rare combination of atmospheric conditions, related to instability of the polar jet stream that encircles Earth at high northern latitudes, led to this summer’s melting. Some scientists have suggested that this jet stream instability, or wobbling, is a result of climate change, although the idea is not completely accepted.
‘Bleak’ U.N. Report: World Heading to Climate Catastrophes
Four years after 196 countries agreed to a landmark deal in Paris to rein in GHG emissions in an effort to avert the worst effects of global warming, humanity is headed toward those very climate catastrophes, according to a recent United Nations report. Both China and the US, the two biggest emitters of GHG, have increased their carbon footprints last year.
“The summary findings are bleak,” the report said, because countries have failed to halt the rise of GHG emissions even after repeated warnings from scientists. The result, the authors added, is that “deeper and faster cuts are now required.”
The world’s 20 richest countries, responsible for more than 75% of emissions, must take the biggest, swiftest steps to move away from fossil fuels, the report emphasized. The richest country of all, the US, however, has formally begun to withdraw from the Paris accord.
Global GHG emissions have grown by 1.5 % every year over the last decade, according to the annual assessment, the Emissions Gap Report, which is produced by the United Nations Environment Program. The opposite must happen if the world is to avoid the worst effects of climate change, including more intense droughts, stronger storm, widespread food insecurity and swelling environmental refugees, by midcentury. To stay within relatively safe limits, emissions must decline sharply, by 7.6 % every year, between 2020 and 2030, the report warned.
Separately, the World Meteorological Organization reported that emissions of three major greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — have all swelled in the atmosphere since the mid-18th century.
Under the Paris Agreement, reached in November 2015, every country has pledged to reduce emissions according to individually determined targets and timetables. Even if every country fulfills its current pledges — and many, including the US, Brazil and Australia, are currently not on track to do so — the Emissions Gap Report found average temperatures likely will rise 3.2C from the baseline average temperature at the start of the industrial age.
According to scientific models, that kind of temperature rise sharply increases the likelihood of extreme weather events, the accelerated melting of glaciers and swelling seas — all endangering the lives of billions of people.
The reported noted that there are many ways to reduce emissions: quitting the combustion of fossil fuels, especially coal, the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel; switching to renewable energy like solar and wind power; replacing gas and diesel-fueled cars with electric vehicles; and halting deforestation.
In fact, many countries are headed in the wrong direction. A separate recent analysis looked at how much coal, oil and natural gas the world’s nations have said they expect to produce and sell through 2030. If all those fossil fuels were ultimately extracted and burned, the report found, countries would collectively miss their climate pledges, as well as the global 2C target, by an even larger margin than previously thought.
A number of countries around the world, including Canada and Norway, have made plans to reduce emissions at home while expanding fossil-fuel production for sale abroad, that report noted. That is not helpful.
“At a global level, it doesn’t add up,” said Michael Lazarus, a lead author of the report and director of the Stockholm Environment Institute’s United States Center. To date, he noted, discussions on whether and how to curb the production of fossil fuels have been almost entirely absent from international climate talks.
The International Energy Agency recently singled out the proliferation of sport utility vehicles, noting that the surge of S.U.V.s, which consume more gasoline than conventional cars, could wipe out much of the oil savings from a nascent electric-car boom.
World Energy Outlook Report
The International Energy Agency published its annual World Energy Outlook, an 810-page report that forecasts global energy trends to 2040. It noted that wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles are appearing around the world faster than predicted. But this rapid growth in clean energy is nowhere near fast enough to offset GHG emissions.
The agency has significantly increased its future projections from last year for offshore wind farms, solar installations and battery-powered cars, both because these technologies continue to decline in cost and because countries like India continue to ramp up their clean-energy targets.
But the report also issues a stark warning on climate change, estimating that the energy policies countries currently have on their books could cause global GHG emissions to continue rising for the next 20 years. One reason is that the world demand for energy is increasing and the rise of renewables has not satisfied the extra demand. The result is that fossil fuels use, particularly natural gas, keeps growing to fill the gap.
“Without new policies in place, the world will miss its climate goals by a very large margin,” said Fatih Birol, the agency’s executive director.
Here are some of the report’s main takeaways:
-Renewable electricity likely will soon surpass coal.
The world’s consumption of coal is declining. Global investment in new coal-fired power plants has slowed sharply in recent years as countries like India find that a combination of solar panels and battery storage is a cheaper way to produce electricity.
Under current policies, the report predicts that renewables such as wind, solar and hydropower will surpass coal as the world’s dominant source of electricity by 2030, growing to 42 % of global generation with coal dropping to 34 %. Natural gas, which is considered to be cleaner than coal but which still produces plenty of planet-warming emissions, will continue to cut into coal’s market share.
But coal is far from dead: Hundreds of coal plants that have already been built in Asia are only 12 years old on average and may operate for decades. It will be extremely difficult for the world to rapidly reduce its GHG emissions, the report warns, unless these existing plants are run less frequently, retired early or retrofitted with technology to capture their CO2 pollution and bury it underground. This carbon capture technology remains costly and has struggled to gain traction.
-Offshore wind is big and growing.
Land-based wind turbines have been preferred, but increasingly in places like Europe’s North Sea, energy companies have been erecting huge turbines offshore that can harvest the stronger and steadier winds over the ocean. Costs continue to fall making this technology an increasingly attractive option.
Offshore wind now supplies 2 % of the European Union’s electricity; the agency expects the share to increase to 18 % by 2040. Major new offshore wind farms are planned in the US, China, South Korea and Japan. If regulatory and permitting hurdles can be streamlined, offshore wind could help slash future emissions.
-S.U.V.s are canceling gains from electric vehicles.
Consumers purchased 2 million electric cars in 2018, thanks to falling battery costs and generous vehicle incentives in places like China and California. The agency expects purchases of electric cars to accelerate worldwide and, as a result, predicts that global gasoline and diesel use for cars could peak by the mid-2020s.
But, the growth in sales of S.U.Vs in the US, Europe, China and India, which consume more gasoline than conventional cars, makes transportation-related emissions a big problem. In 2000, just 18 % of passenger vehicles sold worldwide were S.U.V.s. Today, it’s 42 %. The question is whether carmakers can figure out how to manufacture, and market, battery-powered S.U.V.s and whether consumers will demand it.
-Energy efficiency efforts are slowing.
In addition to switching to cleaner sources of energy, countries can also curb their emissions by improving the energy efficiency of their factories, homes and vehicles through policies like building codes and fuel economy standards.
The report notes that in 2018 the energy intensity of the global economy, a measure of efficiency, improved by just 1.2 %, one of the slowest rates in years. And many countries are weakening their policies, including the US, where Trump plans to roll back standards that would have required more efficient light bulbs.
Mr. Birol noted that there was significant room for improvement in nearly every country. “Two out of three buildings worldwide today are being built without efficiency codes and standards,” he said. “And those buildings can last for five to six decades, so focusing on efficiency is very important.”
-What happens in Africa is crucial.
Africa is projected to urbanize over the next few decades at a faster pace than China did in the 1990s and 2000s. If Africa pursues the same fossil-fuel heavy path to development that China did, GHG emissions could rise considerably.
But, Mr. Birol said, there are reasons to think that African nations can follow a cleaner path. The continent currently has about 40 % of the world’s potential for solar energy but still has less than 1 % of the world’s solar panels. “I think energy developments in Africa are going to surprise many of the pessimists,” he said.
Long-awaited satellite technology able to continuously monitor the planet for methane leaks has arrived and it brings nothing but bad news. For example, a little known gas-well accident at an Ohio fracking site was in fact one of the largest methane leaks ever recorded in the US. Without the technology no one would ever have known of this huge release and it certainly would not have been reported.
The new finding reinforces the view that such methane releases are far more widespread than previously thought.
The blowout occurred in February 2018 at a natural gas well run by an Exxon Mobil subsidiary in Belmont County, Ohio and it released more methane than the entire oil and gas industries of many nations do in a year (like Norway and France). The Ohio episode triggered about 100 residents within a one-mile radius to evacuate their homes while workers tried, for 20 days, to plug the well. About 120 metric tons of methane an hour were released. That amounted to twice the rate of the largest known methane leak in the US, from an oil and gas storage facility in Aliso Canyon, Calif., in 2015, though that event lasted longer and had higher emissions overall.
“When I started working on methane, now about a decade ago, the standard line was: ‘We’ve got it under control. We’re managing it,’” Dr. Hamburg said. “But in fact, they didn’t have the data. They didn’t have it under control, because they didn’t understand what was actually happening. And you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
Scientists said that a critical task was now to expeditiously sift through the tens of millions of data points the satellite collects each day to identify methane hot spots. Studies of oil fields in the US have shown that a small number of sites with high emissions are responsible for the bulk of methane releases.
In a visual investigation published in December, The New York Times used airborne measurement equipment and advanced infrared cameras to expose six so-called Super Emitters in a West Texas oil field. NYT investigators flew over the Permian oil fields, an area the size of Kansas, and their findings address the mystery behind why methane levels in the atmosphere have soared since 2007. Fracking natural-gas production, which accelerated just as atmospheric methane levels jumped, is a prime suspect.
Methane leaks from oil and gas production may well cancel the assumed advantage that natural gas has over coal in meeting the world’s energy needs. When burned for electricity, natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide that coal does. But the production, transportation and storage of methane releases enormous amounts of methane as such studies prove.
In a separate paper published in October, satellites detected and measured a longer-term leak of methane from a natural gas compressor station in Turkmenistan, in Central Asia. Researchers estimated emissions from the site to be roughly comparable to the overall release from the Aliso Canyon event. The leak has now stopped, satellite readings show, after the researchers raised the alarm through diplomatic channels.
Trump has acceded to the requests of the oil and gas industry to relax regulations so as not to interfere with the production of natural gas. (See Washington, below.)
U.N. Climate Talks Fail to Produce Agreement Among World Leaders
Given all the above, it is once again nothing short of astonishing that for the 25th time, world leaders met and failed to agree on concrete steps to reduce carbon emissions and to take other steps relating to combating climate change. And while only the US has decided to withdraw from the Paris accord (see Washington, below), other nations, such as Brazil and Australia, also impeded progress (such that nothing was accomplished on carbon trading).
The Trump administration rejected a range of proposals, including compensating developing countries for losses from intense storms, droughts, rising seas and other effects of global warming. The US (with China and India) also blocked a nonbinding measure encouraging countries to adopt more ambitious targets for reducing GHG emissions next year.
The annual negotiations, held in Madrid this year, again revealed the vast gap between what scientists describe as essential to avert catastrophe and what the world’s most powerful leaders are willing to even discuss. Next year’s meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, will not involve the US.
If Trump is defeated in 2020, the new administration could rejoin the Paris Agreement after taking office in January 2021. China, currently the world’s largest GHG emitter, is likely to evaluate the US position before committing to new emissions reductions targets of its own. A group of small island nations issued a statement that it was “appalled and dismayed” at the inaction and failure of the major emitters to reach consensus on issues critical to their survival.
It is known that even if all countries meet the voluntary targets they have set for themselves in the Paris accord, emissions continue to rise such that future storms and heat waves very likely will become more frequent, deadly and costly and coastal cities likely will be flooded and environmental refugees drastically increased. And yet, the best the parties could do was cite an “urgent need” to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. Utterly pathetic.
Good News: In Climate Ruling, Dutch Court Orders Leaders to Act
The Supreme Court of the Netherlands on Friday ordered the government to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25 % from 1990 levels by the end of 2020. It was the first time a nation has been required by its courts to take action against climate change.
Because of climate change, “the lives, well-being and living circumstances of many people around the world, including in the Netherlands, are being threatened,” Kees Streefkerk, the chief justice, said in the decision. “Those consequences are happening already.”
Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University and co-chair of the Global Climate Change Committee for NYSBA/EELS, said the decision was groundbreaking. “There have been 1,442 climate lawsuits around the world,” he said. “This is the strongest decision ever. The Dutch Supreme Court upheld the first court order anywhere directing a country to slash its greenhouse gas emissions.”
It was the third court victory in the case for the environmental group Urgenda, which filed the lawsuit in 2013 against the Dutch government with nearly 900 co-plaintiffs.
In a 2015 ruling, The Hague District Court issued an emissions-reduction ruling based partly on theories of human rights. It stated that the possibility of damages to current and future generations was so great and concrete that, given its duty of care, “the state must make an adequate contribution, greater than its current contribution, to prevent hazardous climate change.”
On appeal, in October 2018, The Hague Court of Appeal ruled in favor of Urgenda citing obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, stating that the government was “acting unlawfully” by not taking stronger action is “in line with the State’s duty of care.”
On appeal to the Supreme Court of the Netherlands, in December Justice Streefkerk said the argument that a cut in emissions in the Netherlands would not have a big effect on a global level did not absolve a country from taking measures to reduce its own emissions. “Every country is responsible for its share,” he said.
He added that the case had application far beyond his small country. “These human rights, they’re not unique to the Netherlands,” he said. “We think and expect that other lawyers and courts will be looking at this judgment for inspiration about how to deal with this issue.”
The Dutch case has already inspired similar suits against national governments in Belgium, France, Ireland, Germany, New Zealand, Britain, Switzerland and Norway and from plaintiffs around the world against the European Union, part of a larger trend of citizens seeking action from the courts on climate issues.
Lawsuit Against Exxon Begins in New York
The New York Attorney General filed suit in 2018 against Exxon Mobil allegeing that the company not only knew about the hazards of climate change, but defrauded shareholders over its true costs.
The case turns on the claim that Exxon kept a secret set of financial books that seriously underestimated the costs of potential climate change regulation while claiming publicly that it was taking such factors into account.
It is only the second climate-change lawsuit to reach trial in the United States, but it could be a bellwether for the long line of other suits awaiting trial that are intended to hold fossil fuel companies responsible for the costs of climate change.
The case is before Justice Barry R. Ostrager of New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan. Exxon has denied the charges.
The Exxon case does not concern the question as to whether climate change is real, or caused by human activities — or Exxon’s efforts over decades to muddy the public discussion of climate change while its own research showed the urgency of the issue. Those topics are “what everyone thought it was going to be when the investigation started,” Professor Gerrard said.
Professor Gerrard said, “I’m sure that a lot of the trial will be very dull and technical argumentation on how do you calculate the impact of certain disclosures on shareholder value.” The emphasis on shareholder value is crucial to the state’s legal authority under the Martin Act, New York’s sweeping shareholder protection law.
Maura Healey, the attorney general of Massachusetts, has been pursuing a similar investigation and is expected to file her own lawsuit soon.
Justice Ostrager has thrown out most of the claims of selective political prosecution as potential defenses in the case. Exxon has pursued those claims in a separate federal court case that is now before the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, after a federal district judge ruled forcefully against the company’s arguments, saying Exxon’s effort to blunt “duly authorized investigations” through the courts was “extraordinary,” and based on “extremely thin allegations and speculative inferences.”
The case comes to trial as other lawsuits over climate change are making their way through the courts. In two cases involving the city of Baltimore and the state of Rhode Island, the industry has asked the Supreme Court to intervene before the process of discovery begins. Those petitions are pending.
If the state succeeds, however, it could prove to be expensive for Exxon Mobil. A state expert has estimated the cost to shareholders of Exxon Mobil’s actions at somewhere between about $476 million and $1.6 billion. (The company posted earnings of $20.8 billion for 2019.)
Trump Serves Notice to Quit Paris Climate Agreement
The administration formally notified the United Nations in November that it would withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change, leaving global climate diplomats to plot a way forward without the cooperation of the world’s largest economy and second-largest GHG emitter.
The action, which came on the first day possible under the accord’s rules on withdrawal, begins a yearlong countdown to the US exit and a concerted effort to preserve the Paris Agreement, under which nearly 200 nations have pledged to cut GHG emissions and to help poor countries cope with the worst effects of a warming planet.
Around the world, a shift in diplomatic strategy has already begun. Making the accord work without the US will require other major polluters like China and India to step up. China, now the largest emitter of GHG has made significant promises but Beijing’s willingness to deliver is in doubt without similar commitments from the US. Under United Nations rules, China and India are considered developing countries and are not obligated to curb emissions. They agreed to do so as part of the Paris Agreement in large part because the US was taking action.
Some nations are considering more punitive measures. France and Germany this year proposed a European carbon tax to impose on countries with less stringent climate protection policies.
In the US, environmentalists are pressing states, cities and businesses to cut emissions and move to renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. Hundreds of local governments and businesses have made emissions pledges pursuant to a movement called We Are Still In, which seeks to show the world that Americans support the Paris Agreement even if the administration does not.
Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire philanthropist and former mayor of New York City, has started America’s Pledge, an initiative to track efforts by US cities, states, and businesses to reduce GHG emissions. On Monday he also announced that mayors, governors, chief executive officers and environmental leaders would host a “U.S. Climate Action Center” at the next round of climate negotiations to assume the role the American delegation would have played.
Trump Administration Roll-back on GHG Emissions Requirements
The energy industry is seeking and winning looser federal regulations on methane, a major contributor to global warming. The operators of the sites identified by The Times (see Methane Emissions, above) are among the companies that have lobbied the Trump administration, either directly or through trade organizations, to weaken regulations on methane.
Next year, the administration may advance a plan that would effectively eliminate requirements that oil companies install technology to detect and fix methane leaks from oil and gas facilities. By the EPA’s calculations, the rollback would increase methane emissions by 370,000 tons through 2025, enough to power more than a million homes for a year.
The regulatory rollback sought by the energy industry is the latest chapter in the administration’s historic effort to weaken environmental and climate regulations while waging a broad-based attack on climate science.
Scientists say that, in weakening the rules, the Trump administration underestimates methane’s global climate effects. It also disregards research that suggests methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure are far larger than previously estimated.
Methane also contributes to ground-level ozone, which, if inhaled, can cause asthma and other health problems.
“It’s increasingly clear that fossil fuel production has dramatically increased global methane emissions,” said Robert Howarth, an earth system scientist at Cornell University and author of a study estimating that North American shale gas production may be responsible for about a third of the global increase in methane emissions over the past decade.
In the NYT aerial survey, the six methane “super emitters” ranged from 298 to 678 lbs/hr, including at DCP Pegasus, which is part owned by the energy giant Phillips 66.. With the naked eye, investigators cannot detect any methane emissions at all. But with specialized equipment, they can detect several types of gases, including methane and ethane, both greenhouse gases, as well as pollutants called volatile organic compounds.
Those readings would likely quality those sites as “super emitters,” a term used by scientists to describe large-scale releases that are responsible for a disproportionately high share of methane emissions from oil and gas sites. In a 2017 study of the Barnett shale basin in Texas, methane releases of about 60 pounds or more an hour were classified as super emitters, making up just 1 % of sites but accounting for nearly half of total emissions. Oil and gas sites are not required to install round-the-clock emissions monitors.
Fossil fuel companies made contact with the Trump administration as early as March 2017, just months after the presidential inauguration, to argue for a rollback of methane emissions rules. They held repeated meetings with federal officials, including an important one in November 2018, when lobbyists for DCP, EagleClaw and other oil processing companies met with officials from the EPA to discuss unintended or “fugitive” methane emissions.
Representatives of the lobby group, GPA Midstream, argued that the EPA should relax monitoring requirements for fugitive emissions at gathering and compressor facilities. GPA Midstream met with Trump administration officials at least three times on the matter.
The efforts were part of a broader industry push to reverse Obama-era rules that would have forced operators to more aggressively monitor and repair natural gas leaks while reducing flaring.
At a March 2018 meeting, lobbyists for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents thousands of oil and gas companies nationwide, circulated material that forcefully rebutted the scientific evidence of large fugitive emissions from drilling sites. The lobbyists said the data “create the illusion” that super emitters pose a problem, according to a handout from the meeting. Recent investigations suggest the industry material was misleading, at best.
The companies found a sympathetic administration. Before his appointment as assistant administrator at the EPA overseeing air pollution, William L. Wehrum lobbied on behalf of oil and gas producers, including gas processors and petroleum refineries.
Mr. Wehrum was forced to resign from the agency in June and is under investigation for his contacts with former clients. His former boss, Andrew Wheeler, the EPA administrator, also lobbied for energy companies earlier in his career.
By August 2019, the EPA had proposed a broad rollback, including rescinding direct regulations of methane emissions completely. Volatile organic compounds, a separate but related category of gases, would remain regulated, which would have a side effect of limiting some methane emissions.
Energy giants including BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Shell have, to varying degrees, publicly supported methane regulation. However, trade associations representing all three, including the American Petroleum Institute and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, have fought against direct regulation.
Carl Howard, Co-chair
Global Climate Change Committee
The views expressed above are my own.
Follow me on Twitter: @Howard.carl